Psathas Corybas (Ode Records)
Verdict: Hamilton ensemble revisits the chamber music of the composer who took our music to the Athens Olympics.
James Tennant and Katherine Austin have been associated with the music of John Psathas for almost two decades. The Wellington composer wrote his three Island Songs for them in 1995 and this work is the final offering on the New Zealand Chamber Soloists' latest release, Corybas: The Piano Chamber Music of John Psathas.
Tennant and Austin, with violinist Lara Hall, probe into the dark, percussive heart of the first of these pieces; in the second, the finesse of producer Wayne Laird allows us almost to reach out and touch the throbbing sound waves during the cello's guitar-like pizzicato.
Two shorter and lighter works, Corybas and Aegean, were commissioned by this group three years ago, and the first provides a welcoming launch for this venture.
How cheering it is to have contemporary New Zealand music revisited and reinterpreted for new, and hopefully wider, audiences.
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The other major Psathas work for violin, cello and piano, his 2006 Helix, is already available in a gripping account by NZTrio on Rattle Records.
Perhaps the older recording does have a whisker of advantage in smoother string blending, yet the New Zealand Chamber Soloists engage more dauntlessly with the theatrical punch of the piece.
These musicians may give the impression of being ultra-relaxed but, when Psathas pumps up the adrenalin, be prepared for the visceral, with a seismic twist.
Another advantage of this new CD is the composer's fairly full programme notes, despite the occasional editorial gaffe -- "avant guard" certainly produced a wry smile here. This music, with its many references to Greek culture, benefits from background information.
When you realise that the title of Helix's central movement is The biggest nothing of them all, adapted from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, a poignant rendition takes on a new dimension.
Amalia Hall and Robert Ashworth join the trio for Psathas' 2002 Piano Quintet. Here again, a 2003 recording by the New Zealand String Quartet with Stephen Gosling has a slight edge when it comes to crisp and clear minimalist textures. However, the generosity and high spirits of the new performance sweep any major reservations aside.